As cars crowd back onto the roads this summer, the search for ways to ease the traffic crunch is heating up again. A Cambridge startup, Superpedestrian, may have part of the answer: electric scooters for rent.
Flush with $60 million it raised from venture capitalists in December, the spinoff from MIT’s Senseable City Laboratory is rapidly expanding the scooter rental service it started last year.
By the end of July, its chunky green and grey Link scooters will be available in 40 cities, including Hartford, Cleveland, and Seattle in the United States and Lisbon, Stockholm, and Vienna in Europe.
Superpedestrian’s scooters, packed with sensors, GPS, and a cellular connection, don’t need to be parked in a dock. Instead, the company scatters them around cities in convenient locations. Riders can download an app, scan a QR code on a scooter, then zip off at speeds up to 15 miles per hour and park on the sidewalk when finished. Trips typically run one or two miles and cost a few dollars. Superpedestrian also programs the scooters to limit where they can and cannot drive, or even create slow zones with a reduced top speed.
“Demand for using our streets is growing and growing, and our streets pretty much stay the same,” said chief executive and founder Assaf Biderman, who is also associate director of the Senseable City lab. “A fundamental part of the solution is to make the vehicles smaller . . . and make very reliable, very safe, yet economically viable electric vehicle fleets that are tiny.”
But to succeed, Superpedestrian will have to do more than convince people that a scooter ride can replace a short car trip.
Silicon Valley startups like Lime, Bird, and Spin got into the e-scooter rental market years earlier and have considerably more cash to spend. Lime has raised almost $1 billion in total. Bird, which has banked more than $600 million, is going public by merging with a special purpose acquisition company in a deal that will add more than $400 million to its coffers. And Spin is owned by the car giant Ford Motor Co.
Most competitors have relied on repurposing cheap scooters made for the consumer market. By contrast (and in quintessential Boston-tech fashion), Superpedestrian has designed its own vehicle with a host of features for urban rentals. The company has been working on designing electrified bikes and scooters from the ground up since its founding in 2013.
At first, Biderman aimed to build an add-on electric motor for bicycles. Called the Copenhagen Wheel, the bright red hub converted an ordinary bike into an e-bike. It also cost $1,500 and was eventually discontinued. In 2019, the company added e-scooters for sale to other services. There weren’t many takers, so last year it bought the assets of scooter rental service Zagster to kick off its own service.
The Link scooter doesn’t look like most e-scooters that other companies offer. It’s longer and wider, to provide a steadier ride. It also has a thicker neck and handle up front, to make it more durable and resistant to vandalism, with a shock-absorbing fork for easing over bumps and potholes.
At Superpedestrian’s two-building headquarters in Cambridge, not far from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, the staff is seeking to perfect the design. David Michael, director of mechanical engineering, has been tinkering with machines since he rebuilt the carburetor in his mother’s car at age 12.
Now he oversees a torture chamber of sorts for all of Superpedestrian’s scooter parts. On a recent visit, a steaming blue metal box that looked like a large trash dumpster was subjecting a new scooter fork to a salt fog to see how quickly it would rust. In another room behind two thick doors was the bump tester. Weights pressed down on a scooter wheel as it ran against a metal cylinder covered with bumps to simulate hitting deep potholes.
“At first, we bought every scooter we could to see where they would break,” Michael said. “We learned all of the main points of failure. Then you engineer it to withstand the breaks.”
Another key to the scooter’s design is the internal computer, which monitors how all of the hardware systems are performing.
Thousands of scooters all over the world wirelessly report the status of their systems back to Superpedestrian once an hour or so. An artificial intelligence-powered predictive maintenance program then dispatches repair teams when needed. That extends the life of Superpedestrian’s scooters for up to 2,500 rides, the company said, five or 10 times more than cheaper models. That software is the company’s “secret sauce,” Biderman said.
Still, it’s unclear how long Superpedestrian’s design advantages will last. Last month, Spin debuted a scooter dubbed the S-100T that looks more like one of Superpedestrian’s models, with a more durable frame and thicker neck.And Lime’s fourth-generation scooter, introduced in November, added larger wheels and a stronger frame to improve stability and durability.
Superpedestrian is also trying to stand out by partnering closely with the cities where it offers service. That doesn’t sound radical, but in the “micromobility” market, some companies initially tried cracking new locales by just showing up and asking for permission later. For example, Bird dumped dozens of scooters in Somerville and Cambridge in 2018 without any advance notice to city officials, only to yank the machines a few weeks later under heavy criticism.
The partnership approach is now the preferred approach, said David Zipper, a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School who advises governments on transportation strategies.
“Cities have cracked down, and they know much more about how to regulate the companies,” Zipper said.
That’s why Superpedestrian and its peers are still waiting to enter any markets in Massachusetts. Current state law treats e-scooters as mopeds, requiring safety gear like brake lights and turn signals, which most e-scooters lack. The Legislature is expected to revisit the issue in its upcoming session, and Boston and other cities have been pressing for rules to allow e-scooter rental services. (Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey and other leaders have said they’re open to allowing e-scooters.)
A rollout in Hartford shows how Superpedestrian might outpace its rivals. The city ended a bike-rental service from Lime two years ago after some of the bikes were damaged and one ended up tossed into a pond. Superpedestrian’s sturdy Link scooters are much harder to break, let alone pick up and throw into a pond. (Each one weighs more than 50 pounds.)
Jules Wang, 26, said he uses the scooters as a supplement to local bus service to get to and from the city center. Wang doesn’t own a car, and the buses run only once an hour from Hartford to Wethersfield, the town where he lives.
“Link definitely provides a stopgap for me in making my way across the city if I miss a bus and can’t wait an hour for the next one,” Wang said. The scooters can’t leave Hartford, city limits, so Wang rides as far as he can and then hails a Lyft or walks the rest of the way.
Still, Hartford’s scooter program hasn’t been without challenges. Some teenagers rented scooters and rode them onto Interstate 84 while — of course — filming themselves and posting the videos on TikTok. Superpedestrian said it hadn’t anticipated anyone would try to do that and added the highway on-ramps to the scooters’ banned zones via a wireless software update.
“In our system, we don’t ever have an old vehicle version on the road,” said Goss Nuzzo-Jones, director of software. “They just keep getting better with over-the-air updates.”
Aaron Pressman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.